Tuesday, May 23, 2006


The highest good is like water,
benefiting everything but not struggling against anything.
Water dwells in low places that others disdain;
this brings it close to the Way.

In living, stay deep in the heart.
In relationships, be kind.
In speech, be sincere.
In government, be fair.
In work, be efficient.
In action, move at the right time.

Above all, don't compete,
and you will be without blame.

The authors of the Tao Te Ching often compare the Way to water, or hold up some of water's metaphorical qualities as admirable, as they do in this verse. To them, water is the epitome of natural movement; when running down rocks, it doesn't think or worry about which way to take, it doesn't try to run uphill, it doesn't resist the rocks. It just flows around them and keeps going, smoothly and without hesitation. According to these passages, that's what wise people should be like too; not resisting what life throws at them, but "rolling with the punches" and making decisions instinctively, in harmony with the way the world works.

I've translated the last line of the second section as "In action, move at the right time." Some translators have it as "In action, be timely," but I think that sounds too much like advice to get moving and stay on schedule. It's clear from the patterns of the Tao Te Ching that the authors would not get hung up over punctuality. Instead of doing something at the scheduled time, they would prefer to do it at the
right time, whatever that time might be. We can see this in the line above, "In work, be efficient." The character that I've translated as "efficient" can also mean skillful or effective, but one of those glosses doesn't make sense (telling someone to "be skillful") and it's clear that effectiveness is less important to the TTC authors than efficiency.

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